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Occupational disease is a very serious issue. At best it can be debilitating and result in time missed from work, periods of short-term illness and the need to adopt new working practices. It can also have more serious consequences and bring about a change in life circumstances. And, at its very worst, it can even result in death.                                                                                           

The numbers involved in occupational disease are quite frightening. In 2011/12 around 1.1 million people suffered from some kind of work-related illness. There were also around 12,000 deaths last year caused by past exposure to harmful substances at work.


The main problem with tackling occupational diseases is that the cause and effect are not often clearly related. It is often some time before the consequences of the working conditions reveal themselves, by which time it is often too late to do anything about it. In some cases, particularly around harmful substances like asbestos, it can be up to three decades before the symptoms begin to show. This makes establishing links between the cause and effect very difficult. It also means there are some serious barriers to prevention. However, once these links are established, there is no excuse for not taking the necessary action to protect staff and employees against these threats.


Currently, there is a lot being done by authorities such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to tackle occupational disease. These measures are focusing specifically on two main areas: respiratory diseases and occupational cancer. However, work is being done to address some of the other danger areas related to occupational hazards and health, including skin conditions, noise induced hearing problems, hand vibration syndromes and stress.


Without doubt, one of the main causes for concern in terms of occupational disease is asbestos. It is estimated that around 1.8 million tradespeople are potentially at risk from exposure to this substance. Many buildings completed before the year 2000 may contain asbestos in some form or other. If this is disturbed then it can lead to mesothelioma, as well as lung, larynx and stomach cancers. This hidden killer is extremely dangerous and as a result, legislation has been introduced about who is legally allowed to handle the material.


Painters and those who work with chemicals and fumes are also at risk of developing a range of medical conditions. Exposure to solvents, additives and pigments puts them at risk of coming into contact with hazardous materials, which can cause cancer. Those who work with radon gas or who are exposed to solar radiation (often just by working unprotected outdoors) for long periods are also at risk.

The first step in the fight against almost all occupational disease is education and the spread of information. Making sure all staff are informed about the risks they face is key to reducing the shocking statistics. Making sure outdoor workers know about the risks of solar radiation, and ensuring construction workers know the proper procedures for suspected asbestos threats, are crucial in the fight. As is providing the right personal protective equipment in all situations.

Prevention is almost always better than cure, and as we have seen, so many of these illnesses only develop at a later stage when it may be too late. Whilst a lot of work goes into treatment, eliminating the risk is always a better idea. The fight continues.


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